Spain’s influential El Pais newspaper apologized on Thursday for splashing a “false photo” of cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on its front page, prompting a furious response from the government in Caracas, which vowed to take legal action.
Within minutes of posting the image online as a global exclusive, El Pais said it had discovered from social media that the photo was not of Chavez. It removed it from its Web site and withdrew its print edition.
Venezuela’s government said the publication of the photo — which showed the head of a man lying down with a breathing tube in his mouth — was “grotesque,” while Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, a close ally of Chavez, called it vile.
“El Pais apologizes to its readers for the damage caused. The newspaper has opened an investigation to determine the circumstances of what happened and the errors that were committed in the verification of the photo,” the paper said.
Chavez, 58, is fighting to recover in Cuba after undergoing his fourth cancer operation in just 18 months. He has not spoken or appeared in public for six weeks, fueling speculation about how serious his condition is.
El Pais, one of the world’s biggest Spanish-language publications and an institution both in Spain and in Latin America, said it received the grainy image from the agency Gtres Online, which it said represents 60 other agencies in Spain.
El Pais said in a statement that the paper was told it had been taken seven days earlier by a Cuban nurse who was part of Chavez’s medical team and was then sent to the nurse’s sister, who lives in Spain.
“The agency has acknowledged it was deceived by those who provided the material and will take legal action,” El Pais said.
The photo was on the newspaper’s Web site for half an hour and also appeared in early editions of the print version that were then pulled from newsstands and replaced with a new edition with a different front page.
In Venezuela, officials say Chavez’s condition is improving after he suffered multiple complications following the Dec. 11 surgery.
Venezuelan opposition leaders have long accused the government of secrecy over his illness, while supporters accuse “bourgeois” local and foreign media of being in league with the opposition to spread rumors he is at death’s door.
The government says it has never been more transparent. It described El Pais’ publication of the picture — a screengrab from an unrelated 2008 video — as part of efforts by far-right political forces to attack Chavez’s self-styled revolution.
It said it would take appropriate legal action, and that the newspaper’s apology to its readers was not enough.
“Neither their disgusting photos nor their systematic campaigns will stop the president’s advance,” Venezuelan Information Minister Ernesto Villegas told a news conference in Caracas.
“Would El Pais publish a similar photo of a European leader? Of its director? Sensationalism is valid if the victim is a revolutionary sudaca,” he added, using a pejorative term that is sometimes used in Spain to refer to Latin Americans.